I Don’t Need a New Phone

…But I want one!

A picture of phones in a rubbish heap.  If you are sustainably minded ask "I don't need a new phone."
I don’t need a new phone. Heaps of issues.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I’ve seen ads this week for this fall’s new phones- both the Apple 14 and Samsung folding phones. I wish that I could afford either one. But honestly, that’s not in the cards. I still owe about  $400. on my existing phone with the Apple contract I got two years ago. And, I don’t need a new phone for work or anything. But I still wish I had one! Any soothing words for me?! Byrce, Albany

Dear Byrce: If you own a car, you know that we have all gotten in the habit of keeping our cars longer and trading them in less frequently. Eventually that is going to happen to smartphones. But we are in the early days  and each Fall debuts a new apple-picking season. So how do you come to grips with, “I don’t need a new phone?” There are things you can do to spruce up your two year old phone and make it shine again. But first, congratulate yourself for Not running out to get the newest, shiniest device on the market.

A 2022 study estimates 1.4 billion new phones will be manufactured to meet worldwide demand, and join or replace the 4.5 billion phones already in service.  It’s a positive thing when more people in the world acquire phones, but it is less sustainable if we keep manufacturing brand new ones.  That said, phones are not as carbon intensive as say making new cars.

But holding on to your existing phone for a few more years is an environmentally sound decision that you should feel good about. Almost all of the carbon emissions from phones occurs in their first year- from the mining, the manufacturing, packaging, shipping, and so forth. The longer you can hold on this device, the more you reduce the environmental impact. Here in North America we keep our phones an average of just two years. At the end of this column, I’ll mention your phone’s “second-life.”

Shine the Apple:

But, since the phone and you are going to hang for a while longer, what can you do to shine the apple? Quite obviously, you should download and install the newest, latest operating system, and equally importantly, discover and use the new features it brings. iOs 16.0 will let you customize the locked screen with widgets, and that will give your phone a fresh look. It’s  learning about the features packaged inside this new operating system, like undo messaging and live text that will make you feel more state-of-the-art.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with spiffing out the look of the phone and giving it a new skin. Or, a new case for your phone, Airpods, or even a watch would be a smaller investment and make it tactically new. You could also try out a pop-socket,  a reading stand- or  anything that makes you imagine using your existing phone in a different way and trying out new situations. You can’t upgrade the camera lens, but you can probably improve the way you take pictures and videos by playing with the editing tools.

Clean the Apple:

Most importantly, you can delete the apps that you seldom use (you can always reinstall them if you change your mind), clean-up your contact list, and houseclean on the cloud. If you had a new phone you would probably think twice before bringing over all the baggage from the old one.  This deep-clean will refresh your interaction with the phone, and also help it to run faster and use less battery.

Speaking of battery, you might decide in another year or two that you need a new phone. That’s because your device then needs to be plugged in more often and the charge won’t last as long. When this occurs you can consider replacing the battery. That simple step will improve its performance and extend the phone’s useful life. It’s like the cars we drive- the real key to reducing emissions will be prolonged ownership- whether by a single or multiple owners.

Seed A Change:

It doesn’t mean that you and this phone are forever. When you do choose to replace this device, make sure it either goes back to the phone-reseller or a reputable recycler. The former are able to refurbish the phone and sell it to new customers. The latter will dismantle the phone for its useful materials, so there will be less mining of aluminum (the case), tin (circuit boards) cobalt and lithium (batteries) and other elements. Keep the sock drawer for socks (cotton and polyester), not for socking older but precious phones.

Sept. 11 Anniversary and Phones

A picture of World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 and it says 9/11 phone calls from the towers. This looks back on the anniversary of Sept. 11 to phones at that time.
Sept. 11 Anniversary and Phones

This week, on the anniversary of Sept. 11 terrorist attack, we take a Dear Smartphone “time out” to consider how emergency communications have transformed over the two decades since. The inspiration is three-fold:  in last week’s column, a reader lamented the difficulty of getting emergency services in a remote, wooded area; during the week, Apple announced two new I-phone features, vehicle crash detection and satellite service, that will update today’s emergency services.  Third, here on the anniversary of 9-11, we forget that most of us did not have cell phones back in 2001 and that changed everything in terms of our news and emergency response.

Perhaps the most poignant memory from that day is of downtown office workers fleeing the burning World Trade Center on foot, streaming over the Brooklyn Bridge. There are throngs of people rushing out, looking confused, lost, and shocked. Some of the women and men carry purses or briefcases but none of these rushing pedestrians have phones in their hand. When they got off the bridge and reached safer grounds, they would need to find a wired phone or send an email. Back in 2001 the most popular cell phone was the Nokia 3310. These phones were expensive and not an everyday household item. 

But, people needed to connect. So, in 2001 lists were posted physically on buildings and also online with the names of people who were missing both short term, or long term. Again, the emergency system relied on using wired phones and email. Text messages, with luck one that read “I am safe”, were not yet a feature but AT&T introduced it in November of that year. Conceivably it was a feature that the company had planned to debut and the World Trade Center debacle brought urgency to that.


Some  of the deceased were not without mobile phones. In-seat phones were used by passengers on the American and United flights who witnessed their hijacked aircraft. On United Flight 93, thirteen passengers and crew members placed a total of 37 calls, 35 of them from Airfones located on the back seats. Their haunting final conversations are recorded and can be played back.

But, the most haunting memory of that day is not the voice recordings but the pictures. There is one of the second airplane about to hit the Twin Tower, the two buildings obscured in smoke flames, and doomed workers jumping from upper story windows.  Later on, there would be countless images of a waving American flag, fearless first responders, and NYFD cleaning up the rubble. It’s hard to imagine today, but none of these pictures were taken by casual bystanders pulling out their iPhone or Android devices. It took until 2008 and beyond for better picture-taking capability  to be fully integrated into phones. In 2001 the state-of-the-art was a Samsung phone that could take 20 photos with a 0.35 megapixel resolution. Fortunately, there were other sources on 9-11. Downtown Manhattan did not lack for tourists with conventional SLR cameras, there were newscasters and photojournalists in the vicinity, and security officers on the beat. 

These pictures were then shared over newscasts and in newspapers. Broadcast news began filming minutes after the first plane crash and they suspended all other coverage that day. But notably, stories and pictures did not rebroadcast on social media since the likes of Facebook and Twitter did not emerge until nearly twelve years later. Today, pictures from bystanders would be posted in seconds, unfolding news would be sent out in small tweets or lines of text, and there would be a corresponding flare of person-to-person commentary, rumor, emotional outpouring, communal shock, and perhaps panic.


Most likely, today’s young adults have a disconnect. They may learn about 9-11 in school or from their family but have a hard time imagining how different communications were at that time.” B.C.” (before cell phones) people who made it to safety had to wait to find a way to connect and let their loved ones know they where ok. People trapped in the rubble may have died without this capability. So today, 9/11/2022 – emergency communications are vastly improving, as witnessed this week with brand new notification features on the iPhone. Is the world getting safer? It’s hard to know.

In closing, a touch of irony about shared history and memories, “A.C.” (after cell phones). A firefighter who lost his brother on Sept. 11 visited the 9-11 Memorial in New York City, which opened in 2011. At this somber site there are reflecting pools and alongside, etched in stone, the individual names of the people who lost their lives. The firefighter, in his own post, found phone media to be intrusive and callous. He bemoaned the visitors armed with selfie-sticks that visit the Monument, pose, say cheese, smile, click and share.

Satellite Phone and Home Emergencies

On the anniversary of 911- how to reach 911 and more….

An image of the planet earth with five satellite rotating above it. In the near future will we linkup satellite phones and home emergencies on regular cellphones?
Satellite Phone and Home Emergencies

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My son and daughter-in- law live in a hilly, woody area, and their cell phone service can be spotty. Sometimes they get a good signal, and sometimes there is none at all. When I call them, the line often goes dead.  I am concerned for them since it is fire season and they might need to evacuate. On top of that, they are expecting a first baby and might need to get help quickly.  I am used to living out here and mostly prepared, but I don’t think they are so ready. Susanna, Inverness

Dear Susanna: There are lots of online lists that will help you put together an emergency kit as well as prepare the overnight bag for a new mother. What they share in common is a list of contacts to notify! But honestly, it’s challenging to put together an emergency kit for telecommunications, particularly since plain-old-wired phones are less reliable these days.  Let’s first talk about the risk of fires: Although authorities may try to notify you over broadcast networks or through sirens, there is increasing dependence on the cell phone for alerts. What happens if your phone is turned off or runs out of battery?  It means you need to have an extra charging cable in your vehicle, or a power pack ready with the appropriate cords. In more populated areas of Marin and Sonoma Counties you can power the phone back at  police stations or fire departments, and some public libraries.

A few columns ago I answered a question from a  West Marin reader about getting notifications about fires. They were curious about the designated apps like Nixle.  Although there are pluses and minuses to this system- seems like your location data may be revealed and you will receive out-of-area notifications- the plus is that you might hear when to evacuate. Make sure that your cell phone is turned ‘on’ and receives messages even when you go to sleep. (That could be disturbing!) We are all likely, from time to time, to forget to plug in overnight and check the status of the battery.

Speaking of night, babies seem to like to come after the midnight hour. Not sure when the new baby is due (congratulations !) but hopefully later, beyond an announcement that Apple Inc. is expected to make in early September. I will update the column when we hear the outcome- from Apple, that is. Update 9/7/2022= yes, see below!)

Apple is rumored to announced a new feature for the Iphone 14 that has practical use in areas like West Marin. The expectation is that a satellite-based emergency feature will allow iPhone models to send texts in emergency situations, even when they can’t reach a cellular network. This new feature will rely on satellite networks, not on transmitting messages over cell phone towers. The rumor yet again, is that it will work on newer phones, not all of them. Other carriers, like T-Mobile are also said to be working on satellite plans and you can find older geeky details here in TechCrunch.

Satellite phones operate anywhere on earth so dead-spots should be less of an issue. This is valuable if the cell phone towers are damaged in a fire or earthquake. However, satellite service has to pass overhead to send and receive messages. So, you might need to wait a few minutes so that you are positioned in a direct line of service. They can also experience interference from clouds or smoke. I have not personally owned a satellite phone and would suggest that you read the customer reviews carefully before you choose one. My kids have a device that is used for boating and hiking, and it just transmits an SOS signal.  You can rent a satellite phone month by month, or purchase it outright. Perhaps you will want to drop the service after the baby arrives, fire season subsides, and everyone is home safely.

There are similarities between operating this satellite phone and your regular cell phone service. You want to ensure that you have a wall charger for the phone, and all the appropriate cables so that you can either charge up in your vehicles or with a micro USB to your computer. If you plan to keep the phone for future emergencies then consider getting a phone that has solar panels for remote charging. If the phone is tucked away it may not keep its charge. 

Another ‘what-if’ for properly equipping the emergency kit: keep the device’s operating directions nearby, and make a test call so you understand how to make and receive calls. Some services will provide you with a dedicated number for testing. 

In closing, I want to mention that your query comes on the anniversary of the real 9-11. Tragically, a satellite phone would not have saved the 3000 + people who died in the mayhem.  If there was a future terrorist attack directed towards our telcom network and  cell phone towers, the country’s communications network would be crippled. The saving grace could be satellite service delivered via a watch or phone. Thanks for a timely reminder about emergency lifelines.